Japan – Kyoto

Anyone who had visited Japan told me that I must visit Kyoto. I heard that from so many people! All said that it was a beautiful, historical city that had been spared the bombs during WW II. So, I was quite disappointed when we got off the train, into this colossal train station and then walked out into the busy streets of this major city of Kyoto. The way it had been presented to me, I expected a small, quaint town with narrow streets and little traffic. Kyoto is the seventh largest city in Japan. There are the quaint, narrow streets, but not upon first impressions!

Our day began by walking back to the train station and having a breakfast of coffee and puff pastries filled with cheese and shrimp at Du Monde Cafe. Yes, that is the same Du Monde Cafe from New Orleans fame! Outside of the train station was the bus station, so we caught the #5 bus to the Higashiyama to do a self-walking tour.

I am proud to report that I was able to follow the bus route on the map and figure out where to get off! No easy feat!

Our walk took us along a canal called the Path of Philosophy. It is a place of inspiration for intellectuals to come for inspiration. It is not difficult to see why. Such a tranquil place and again, in the spring, it is covered in the pink cherry blossoms.

The first temple on our walk was the Ginkakuji Temple. Now, this temple is one of Kyoto’s premiere sites. In 1482, this villa was constructed by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa for a retreat from the civil war. The name of the villa translated to “Silver Pavilion” but his ambitions to cover the building with silver was never met. After, Yoshimasa’s death, the villa was converted to a temple.

After entering through the gates, you are in the garden area which included meticulously raked white sand. The workmen were raking and cleaning this garden. It was interesting the tools that they were using and the process. It was very methodical and time consuming. The end results was lovely and peaceful.

Now, I mentioned that this was one of the premier sights. Well, we got to see the garden and the path through the woods, up the mountainside. You guessed it, the pavilion was under scaffolding being restored! Unbelievable, no?

After visiting the Silver Pavilion Temple, we continued walking along the Philosopher’s path to the Eikan-do Temple. David opted out of visiting this one. So, I went in and it was a lovely spot. It is here that I got one of my all time favorite photos of Japan…the monks walking to prayer. If you look closely, toward the front, is who I believe to be the senior monk being wheeled in a wheelchair. He was being helped into the wheelchair when I arrived at the temple and was wearing an orange robe, which is different from everyone else. Plus, he was considerably older. As I walked through this temple, you could hear the monks chanting their prayers. It really made me feel that I was in a sacred place.

This temple was founded in 855 by the priest Shinsho. the name was changed to Eikan-do in the 11th century to honor the philanthropic priest, Eikan. There were several halls and walkways around tiny garden areas. One hall had six rooms that were decorated with beautiful murals of nature such as tigers and trees. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take pictures of the statues and art work in this temple.

The largest hall, Amida-do, held the statue “Looking-back Amida”. The main icon of the Eikan-do Temple. The story behind this statue is on February 15, 1082, Abbot Eikan, then the chief priest was intoning the Nembutsu while walking around the statue of Amida. To make this more simple, I am just going to quote the pamphlet: “He suddenly came to as the dawn was breaking, Amida came down from his pedestal, and began walking away, beckoning to Eikan. Eikan could do nother but stare, speachless and unmoving. Then Amida looked back at Eikan and called to him in a soft voice. “Eikan! come with me!” Eikan decided to pass on to others the merciful heart he had received from Amida and prayed, “Please, keep that form forever!” After that, a statue of this form was made.”

“In Buddhism, it is thought that untold Buddhas exist in the limitless universe. For example, in the far west there is the world of the Pure Land Paradise. There it is said that the Buddha Amida preaches the teachings. Amida is the Buddha who saves us all. In the very distant past, in order to attain the highest enlightenment, Amida established 48 vows. Among them, the most important for our sect is the 18th. this vow is that, if anyone says the name of Amida from the heart, he will be reborn in the Pure Land Paradis and become a Buddha.”

The hall that housed Amida-do was, you guessed it, under renovations! I was able to see the statue through the scaffolding and we were allowed in the hall to watch the workers. What I saw of the hall was beautiful. The ceilings and beams were all painted in beautiful colors. This is what the artist were working on. It was interesting as they held three or four brushes with different colors.

From this large hall, we were directed behind to the walkway that took you up to the two story pagoda, on the side of the hill, that gave a great view of Kyoto. There was an interesting “harp” like instrument at the base of the stairs that led up to the pagoda. You dripped water through the bamboo and as it hit the inside, it made a tinkling sound. I thought it was very unique. Of course, I must add, it was difficult to hear the tinkling sound as there was construction going on nearby!

The stairway to the pagoda was beautiful. It is called “garyuro” as it resembles the form of a sleeping dragon (garyu in Japanese). You decide….has anyone seen a sleeping dragon lately?

We passed up a couple of other temples. Honestly, after awhile, if you have seen one, you tend to feel that you have seen them all! Our last stop for the day on the Philosopher’s Path were the grounds of the Nanzenji Temple.

This temple began as a retirement villa for the Emperor Kameyama and was dedicated as a Zen temple after his death in 1291. On the grounds was the massive Sanmon Gate and a very interesting raised aqueduct. It looked like something out of the Roman empire.

This walk brought us back to approximately where we started at the park with the art museum. Across from the park was the convenient store, 7-Eleven…while, but the chain is over there and it turned out to be a great place to pick up a quick lunch. There was a whole section of prepackaged noodle dishes with chicken, tofu and veggies. In front of the store were benches where you could sit and eat. It appeared to be a “hot spot” for lunch. The food wasn’t too bad.

After lunch, we started to walk to explore other parts of Kyoto. We were heading for the Gion district and eventually to Nishiki Ichiba, which was the market area of 150 grocery stores, that I had read about earlier in the morning. Walking to the Gion area, we took side streets and found a lovely one that was along another canal and was lined with weeping willow trees. There was little traffic and it was a pleasant area to walk.

The Gion district is the entertainment and geisha spotting area. So, since we were there around 2:00 in the afternoon, it was fairly quiet. We didn’t see any geishas but we did see 3 women out for an afternoon of shopping dressed in kimonos. From Gion, we walked along the Kamogawa River and crossed over towards the downtown area of Kyoto where the major shopping areas are. We eventually came to Shinkyogoku-dori and Teramachi-dori which were the covered streets to make a mall area of restaurants, department stores and souvenir shops.

It was off of this shopping area that we came to Nishiki Ichiba, the shopping area with 150 grocery stores. There was a variety of food, everything from fresh fish, vegetables, fruit, sweets and pottery. Much of the food we saw, we had no clue what it was. The language was such a hindrance because if they didn’t speak English, they would really shy away from you. So, often, it was just easier not to ask.

From this area, we made our way to the Kyoto train station and hopped a local train for Fushimi to see the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. It was the highlight of the day! There isn’t much, from what we could see, of the town of Fushimi, except for the shrine. What an amazing spectacle!

This shrine is dedicated to the guardian diety Inari, which is often portrayed in the physical form of a fox. Inari is the diety who protects people from disasters and grants success in business. Throughout the shrine, there are statues of foxes that people stand before and pray. The Japanese see the fox as a mysterious figure capable of “possessing” humans, through the fingernails!

For me, the most amazing part of the shrine were the thousands of red Torii gates that were presented to the shrine by devotees. You walk through the tunnels of the torii gates throughout the wooden hills to get to the various five shrines. The gates were an amazing site and probably my most favorite part of the Kyoto area!

It was the end of the day when we finished walking all over the Fushimi-Inari Taisha shrine. We had seen much this day and done tons of walking. Once back at the train station, we got information for the train to Nara, where we were headed the next day. Once again, because it was convenient and we were tired, we ate at the Poncho mall and then made our way back to the Ryokan. For the record, we walked 17 miles and took 36, 122 steps!!!

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